CAIRO — Cairo officials voted Monday to bring an engineering firm on board to assist with the protection of the world-renowned fossil forest.
A research team from Binghamton University was sifting through fossil soils at a quarry behind the Cairo Highway Department when they discovered the root system of trees thought to be 385 million years old, dating back to the Devonian Age, according to the university.
The forest is believed to predate a fossilized forest in Gilboa, formerly tabbed as the world’s oldest forest, by 2 million to 3 million years.
The town board passed a resolution Monday to bring Barton & Loguidice of Albany on board.
“There is no cost to the town because they haven’t prepared anything,” Town Supervisor John Coyne said. “They are not getting paid a retainer to do anything. In the event we find some funding to protect the fossil forest, we will ask them to assist us with getting that funding.”
The town has had recent issues with trespassers on the property, Coyne said.
“We’ve got to protect it,” he said. “We had kids up there on four wheelers and side by sides, and some large rocks surrounding the fossil forest were moved,” he said.
Police were called to the scene but the trespassers were gone when they arrived, Coyne said.
“Right now our main concern is keeping it safe and secure,” Councilman Steve Kralovich said. “We’re in the process of trying to get monies to fence the area in. We had some recent vandalism — some quads and UTVs — they moved some of our barriers and had driven on the fossils themselves.”
Councilman Jason Watts, who is running for town supervisor this fall, proposed that the town sell the property.
“For the amount of money we would sell it for, we probably wouldn’t have to have land taxes in the town of Cairo if we managed the money properly,” Watts said. “We could build a community center, actually put a courthouse in. We would actually be able to do a lot more stuff.”
Coyne said he does not think the property should be sold.
“Right now, I don’t think the town should be giving it up,” he said. “It should stay in the ownership of the town.”
Kralovich agreed, saying that he felt the estimates provided by Watts were unrealistic.
“I think he is talking millions up to billions of dollars to get for it,” Kralovich said. “I don’t think that’s realistic. We need to put our energies into keeping it the way it is right now, not try to sell it.”
Watts received an estimate of $500,000 to $1 billion, he said in November.
“We can’t afford to protect it even,” Watts said. “I believe the private sector could do a lot more with it and offer more than the government could do with it. I would love to see it go to a school, that would be great and let them study it. There’s only one in the world.”
Selling the property would have a greater benefit, Watts said.
“Listen, we got to make it somehow in this town and we own the Mona Lisa of land, so we might as well sell it,” he said. “It’s not making us any money sitting there.”
Councilman Tim Powers opposes selling the property, he said.
“It needs to stay in the hands of the town of Cairo,” he said. “One board member would rather sell it. I think at this point, just selling it isn’t serving the will of the people.”
Powers said Watts was going to provide the board with a list of potential investors.
“That has never come to fruition,” he said. “It is a piece of our history. It’s not going to serve the public properly if it’s sold off. We need to protect it and then develop it so the community can enjoy it.”
Councilwoman Mary-Jo Cords was open to the idea of selling.
“We don’t really have the money to protect it the way it needs to be protected,” she said. “It would be better for the use of the site if somebody that had the money purchased it.”
The value of the property warrants preservation, Cords said.
“It’s a geological phenomenon and is supposed to be the oldest fossilized trees in the world but it needs protecting,” she said. “It needs to be fenced off so people don’t drive over it with ATVs or try to collect souvenirs.”